Medieval scholar to take one-year trip to explore Iceland’s sagas


A Cambridge scholar is starting a one-year journey across Iceland, to examine the history and significance of Icelandic sagas. Dr Emily Lethbridge, who just completed her post-doctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, will be driving around the small nation using an old ambulance as she explores the many places associated with Íslendingasögur (‘sagas of Icelanders’).

The sagas focus on Iceland and Icelandic society in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and describe both the everyday life of the first generations of island-settlers, and the conflicts that arose between individuals and families. Along the way, they present a great number of highly individual and memorable characters.

Starting from the east of the island and criss-crossing the country, Emily will visit the physical settings of all 30 plus sagas over the course of her year’s self-funded research.

Dr. Lethbridge explains, “My trip is going to be a 21st-century pilgrimage to the saga-steads of Iceland. I’m taking the ambulance from the UK to Denmark where I’ll catch a ferry to the Faroe Islands and then, weather at sea permitting, to Iceland.

“Once in Iceland, I will travel around and across the country reading each of the sagas in the very landscapes in which they’re set. I want to talk to people I meet about their personal interests in local sagas and hope to record their oral responses to the events and characters portrayed in them.”

“Even though they are hundreds of years old, the sagas are still widely celebrated. They are a uniquely important part of Iceland’s cultural heritage. People there are much more familiar with the sagas than the British are with the most important works of English literature – the works of Shakespeare, or Dickens, for example – although the sagas are much older.

“This is partly on account of the Icelandic language not changing much over time, and partly because of the island’s history. But essentially, they are about human nature, and many of them are incredibly compelling stories concerned with honour and reputation, vengeance, love, desire and death.”

She has set up a blog at – The Saga-Steads of Iceland – where she will write about her progress in travelling around the country. Emily adds, “One of the underlying objectives of my year-long research trip and the book I intend to write is to show people back in the UK that there is more to Iceland than fishing, failed banking systems and volcanic ash clouds.”

“The sagas were copied continuously by hand from the 13th to the 20th century – the printing press never having displaced that tradition – and they were read aloud in farmhouses during winter evenings, in some cases right up until the introduction of the first national radio station in the 1930s. By reading the sagas ‘in situ’, I want to explore the country’s remarkable culture against the background of its extreme landscape – and most importantly, I want to communicate this in an engaging way to people outside of Iceland who may never have heard of the sagas before.”

Click here to listen to an interview with Dr. Lethbridge from the BBC

Source: University of Cambridge

Sharan Newman

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